June, 2010

Our work

Our work
You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

On the Lagan

Find out what we're up to in the Lagan Valley Regional Park...
  • Idylls of the Lagan

    By now you might be well aware that barn owls are a beautiful but declining bird of prey - their numbers having collapsed over the past 40 years as farming has intensified. To our delight the species is still sighted within the Lagan Valley and has inspired organisations such as the National Trust team at the Minnowburn Farm, to help protect and expand the habitat, which remains for Barn Owls. This week Nicole and Stephanie caught up with Craig Somerville and Lynn Cassels of the National Trust down on the farm, to check up on their new barn owl box and offer some barn owl friendly advice to help encourage barn owls to take up residence.

    The entrance to the Warden's Office in Minnowburn.

    That's the Giant's Ring - a 5,000 year old earthwork which has a megalith tomb in the centre of the monument. It's pretty impressive.

    There's the tomb.

    And part of the henge, a circular earthwork that you can walk around. An a day like this its bliss.

    With a red pump and a field of contented cows, the National Trust's Minnowburn Beeches is a pastoral idyll com true!

    From a cosy stone barn, which functions as the warden’s office between the Giant’s Ring and Minnowburn itself, we chat about the barn owl box which has been put up on a majestic ash tree in the field just below us. From where we sit, we can see cows dawdling in the cool shade of the tree, taking shelter from the astonishing summer heat.

    Craig Sommerville, who is the Trust’s warden for this and some seven other properties, has been here now for the past eight years. He is happy to chat about all the work the Trust has been doing to improve the surrounding area for wildlife. His enthusiasm, and that of the Careership Warden, Lynn Cassels, is infectious.


    Many changes have been made since he first arrived, much of it determined by the inexorable march towards a more wildlife-friendly form of farming.

    For instance, the field that the barn owl box has been put up in has ‘only just recovered’. Leased out to a farmer, it was little more than a mud bath when Craig arrived.  

    “There were a few ring feeders and the cows were overwintering in it,” he recalls. “It was a mess.”

    Since then, the field has been restored to grass and is managed extensively, that is no fertiliser or pesticides are spread on it. It is grazed through the summer, but left in the winter. 

    “We are trying to move towards a more wildlife-friendly way of looking after the 130 acres that we have,” he says. “For instance another field, just in front of the barn and quite near the river, was being sprayed heavily. We lowered the rent for the farmer so that he would stop spreading slurry and chemical fertiliser to maintain his perennial rye grass silage. It has only been two years since this practise was halted and now we have Yorkshire Fog.”

    To a lay person like me, this means nothing, but he explains the field is now reverting to a more natural state and he hopes that one day it will be filled with wildflowers, a vast array of insects, mammals and birds.

    He laments the passing of the swallows which were more plentiful before an old barn was knocked down. “There used to be loads here, and now, they are almost all gone,” he says. “We still have a few nesting in our old barn I’m hoping to renovate soon, but it will certainly be after the nesting season and when we do, it will be stuffed with bird-friendly features.” 

    This is of course music to the ears of Nicole, who is advising the Trust on the things it could do to boost their bird numbers. From swift bricks and boxes, to rough grass margins of the owls, to leaving holes for the swallows to enter and exit, there is so much that can be done – and at such little cost.


    They also chat about kingfisher tunnels near the old bridge. Nicole says they will need two as kingfishers raise two broods in quick succession. This means that a good amount of riverbank will be needed to site the two tunnels which are quite large.

    Just before we leave, I spy what appears to be a clay pipe on the table and Craig says that they found it in the field when the farmer was ploughing it.


    “This would have been around the 1700s,” he says, picking up the dainty white object that amazingly still retains it glaze. “This was probably made in Belfast on Pipe Lane and would have been replaced every week. The farmer would have bought it on Saturday in time for his pocket on Sunday when he went to church.” 18th century- not very biodegradable – disposable clay pipes!


    As we pack up to go home, the peace and tranquillity of Minnowburn Beeches seems a world a way from the hustle and bustle of Belfast – and even further away from the 21st century. It is a dappled, dream-filled pastoral idyll that has somehow managed to magically live On the Lagan. 


    News just in from the frontline as the Lagan Valley Regional Park crew continue in their battle against alien invasive plant species.  A crack team of expert balsam bashers were out recently for a very successful fightback, as intrepid volunteer JO reports:

    As volunteers for Lagan Valley Regional Park one of the tasks we undertake for a few weeks in June each year is the now (in)famous balsam bash.   

    The Himalayan Balsam is an invasive foreign species that escaped the confines of a garden and is making a takeover bid all over the Lagan Valley and beyond - the plants grow close together a few metres high squeezing out our native wildflowers.  Unfortunately bees prefer its copious nectar which threatens pollination of our native plants and the numbers of their species.  Little light gets through to the ground and grass doesn’t grow, so when the plants die off later in the year the ground is at threat from erosion by the elements. Each plant catapults its hundreds of seeds meters away from it, so its important to prevent the further spread and to push it back.  

    Last Saturday the weather was gorgeous and we congregated in a heavily infested, though thankfully shaded, wooded area off Mary Peters Track where the balsam was making steady progress through the wood and inroads over an adjacent field.  There is no doubt it’s a huge task - we discuss it as we work and come up with imaginative and ridiculous ways to get rid of it*.  To prevent its rampant spread we have to bash for at least three years in each area as the seeds can germinate two years after dispersal  . . . and there are thousands of them.  

    Although it’s a long term committment it isn’t a difficult job as the plant itself has very poor roots and is at a comfortable height to be easily pulled up root attached.   When we arrived in the morning there was a meter high canopy of balsam spreading in front of us, but a morning’s hard work, some nettle stings and bramble scrapes later and a dozen people walked away from an area that was altogether much more as (native) nature intended.  It does look much better and it made such a difference to our wild flowers struggling for room. 

    *details ommitted to protect the oversensitive

    Guest blogger:    JO,  Lagan Valley conservation volunteer


    Here are some great photos of barn owl boxes going up. Next week we'll have them being set up in bits of Minnowburn, National Trust land, along with kingfisher tunnels. Look out for that posting!

    Barn owl boxes are one way which we hope that these adorable birds will eventually start recovering again. A combination of good hunting grounds and a hospitable tree/box is usually the key to its success.

    There are many enthusiastic barn owl people out there who help to do this. Much of the work is carried out by volunteers - and all of it is done by people who really do feel for this almost magical species.

    How to erect your own barn owl box

    First, find a hospitable tree.. or barn...

    Then get a barn owl box... these can be bought, or made, or old tea chests have aldo stood in where they can be found....

    Install the box

    Wait for the bird....

    ... monitor the box...

    Talk about a room with a view!


    The side of houses/barns is also a good place.

    One of my favourite stories about encounters with barn owls was told by the previous head of Botanic Gardens in Belfast. I hope Reg doesn't mind if i use it...

    As a boy, Reg was cycling home in the dark...somewhere. And he heard a really strange sound behind him. It seemed unearthly, a soft swishingness, and it also seemed to be following him. Terrified, he didn't dare turn around, but after a while he decided that he would, and he was almost frightened out of his skin as he came face to face with a barn owl!!!

    Well let's hope Nicole does the same sometime soon!